Hours before the College Football Playoff would begin, the defense contingent of the team that just missed making the field of four was on formal display here. If anyone needed further evidence of how broad the expanse between In and Out really is, this more than sufficed.
This was the day for Georgia’s defensive coordinator to speak. Thing is, Georgia doesn’t have one. Mel Tucker was named Colorado’s head coach earlier this month, and he’s a full-fledged Buffalo now. Had the Bulldogs been playing for something that matters, he surely would have delayed his Boulder arrival – after being anointed Georgia’s head coach in December 2015, Kirby Smart stuck around Alabama long enough to win another championship ring – but a non-playoff bowl doesn’t warrant double duty.
Georgia being Georgia, which is to say Smart being Smart, the identity of the Bulldogs’ designated talker wasn’t revealed until 9:21 a.m. CST, nine minutes before the session was to start. The name card placed on the dais read “Dan Lanning.” He coaches Georgia’s outside linebackers. He has been on staff for 11 months. Ordinarily nobody would much care what Dan Lanning has to say, but since no Georgia assistant is permitted to speak for publication/broadcast during the regular season – Smart got that from Nick Saban – any coachly utterance must be monitored
First question: Who’s going to call defensive signals in Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl? Said Lanning: “A lot of people put more into that than is really the actual case. We make a lot of decisions during the week before you ever get to the game. So, when you look at a specific situation in the game, a lot of those decisions have already been made. The right answer is that everyone’s going to be involved in that.”
He mentioned inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann. He mentioned line coach Tray Scott. He mentioned Smart, once a defensive coordinator of note. Lanning again: “We’re divvying stuff up as a staff. The defense we run is the defense we run.”
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Asked if he had interviewed to be Tucker’s full-time replacement – or to join Tucker as Colorado’s defensive coordinator – Lanning said: “Our complete focus has been this game.”
So: Obfuscation all around. Someone – or maybe four someones – will call Georgia’s defense against Texas. Or maybe they’ve decided what they’re going to call already. And if you believe that, you probably believe Urban Meyer won’t be USC’s coach a year from now. Then again, this is just a Sugar Bowl in non-playoff manifestation, so who really cares?
Georgia’s best defender is, or at least was, cornerback Deandre Baker. After saying he would play in the Sugar Bowl, Baker announced this week that, after further review, he would not. To a man, Smart and his players have said they supported Baker’s choice not to risk injury ahead of the NFL draft. From a business sense, it makes … well, sense. But here we note: Nobody has yet skipped a CFP semifinal/final for fear of getting hurt.
Said Georgia defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter: “No, you don’t see that. I mean, you can definitely understand why.”
This isn’t to suggest that non-playoff bowls can’t provide occasionally intriguing viewing. But that’s kind of the point: There are 40 bowls, 35 of which are aired by ESPN; indeed, the Worldwide Leader owns 13 of them outright. For all the blather about bowls providing players Exotic Trips – ask Georgia Tech how Detroit was – and Meaningful Experiences, let’s be honest: These things exist mostly as live programming and payouts for the respective conferences.
(Example: The aptly named Cheez-It Bowl paired seven-win Cal against six-win TCU. It yielded two touchdowns and nine interceptions. It went to overtime, in which all manner of silliness ensued. Indeed, the game was so silly that it did a mighty nice Nielsen number for ESPN.)
Even in the BCS days, it almost was possible to pretend that the bowl matrix had a reason for being. The BCS involved only two teams and one game. The playoff comprises four teams and three games, and the playoff – also on ESPN – has in five years come to dwarf all else. Even the other New Year’s Six bowls (the Sugar is one) are afterthoughts.
Ledbetter: “I’ve been on both sides. I definitely will say – I’m not going to lie – it’s different when you’re in the national championship from a player’s perspective. You feel like you’re going toward something.”
Then: “With Georgia, we always keep the main thing the main thing. If we’re in a game, we’re going to play our hearts out. We’re going to give it all we’ve got.”
Alas, Georgia’s main thing this postseason isn’t really a main thing. A year ago, the Bulldogs were readying for the Rose Bowl semi with Oklahoma – and after that the title date with Alabama. The Crimson Tide were to meet the Sooners on Saturday night in another semi, with Clemson and Notre Dame colliding in the playoff opener. Had the Bulldogs held a 14-point lead against Alabama four Saturdays ago, they’d have been among the chosen.
Said Ledbetter: “I’ll be watching them. I’d love to be playing in them right now.”
Then, smiling: “But (we’ve) still got the opportunity to play in the Sugar Bowl.”
Well, yes. There’s that. And the prospect of a New Year’s Eve in NOLA is no trifling thing. But still: This is a consolation bowl for Georgia, and when you were No. 5 on a list where only four gained entrance, there’s no consolation.